Meaningful Domestics

TLDR; a limiting social factor on the size of the economy should be the high valuation for reproductive, volunteer, and domestic work. If I were a stay at home mother taking care of children, volunteering at local events, contributing to community growth, and producing food in a local community garden the value of my work in our society is zero despite contributing quite significantly. Unfortunately, this is one of my most underdeveloped areas of understanding for social limits, but point you to the work of Sophia Sanniti and Sarah Louise Ruder for a much more comprehensive overview of the arguments.

This is a series of posts linked with my PhD project – Social Limits to Growth. These posts describe some of the theory, thinking, and correlations each of these “EE approaches to the social sphere” have with research that was conducted for my PhD. For a full overview of my PhD see my main project page.

The main motivation for these series of approaches is that while ecological economics takes biophysical limits seriously, there is often limited discussion on what the social limits to our economy are. For example, the balance between how alienated/anxious/depressed a person becomes to produce an efficient product should be limited by assurance that a person is getting gainful meaning from their work and labour. So just as nitrogen is a biophysical limit to growth, alienated and meaningless work is also a social limit to growth.

Here is a list of the works cited throughout my thesis and all these posts. References to “city 9” “pei 11” or “maker 1” are references to participants in my research.

There are various feminized externalities in economics (Chant 2011; Mammen and Paxson 2000; Oksala 2015; Rosenblum 2009; C. L. Williams 1993) such as cooking, cleaning, volunteering, and the ‘mental load’. This suggests that women’s rights, in general, are important. However, the voice of women is missing from ecological economics. The top authors since the inception of the journal are all male, except one – shown below (Arruda and Dolter 2016).

NameCounts%Cumulative %
William E. Rees82.47%2.47%
Kai M.A. Chan72.16%4.63%
Jack H. Ruitenbeek72.16%6.79%
G. Cornelis van Kooten61.85%8.64%
Ussif Rashid Sumaila61.85%10.49%
Peter A. Victor51.54%12.04%
Robin Gregory51.54%13.58%
Shashi Kant51.54%15.12%
Jie He51.54%16.67%
Oliver T. Coomes41.23%17.90%
Terre A. Satterfield41.23%19.14%
Meidad Kissinger30.93%20.06%
Sarah C. Klain30.93%20.99%
Robert D. Cairns30.93%21.91%
B. James Deaton30.93%22.84%
Qi Feng Lin30.93%23.77%
Denis Cormier30.93%24.69%

And yet, most of the participants in the Maker Culture case studies were women. This is possibly because women more often play the role of on-the-ground actors of ecological economics. As such, women need to have an active voice in how their gendered role and ecological political economy evolve over time.

Counter-intuitively, modern feminism may be creating a barrier for women’s roles to evolve in necessary ways. For example, Janet Biehl argues that some ecofeminists come off as “enraged…goddess-worshipping and anti-intellectual”, undercutting its important role in “activism and its theoretical potential” (Clausen 1991, 346). She goes on to say that there is a tendency to defame “oikos [home] and its value as a substitute [and complement] for the polis”. This was supported by the women in the Maker Culture case study: some women commented that their decision to quit their job or to be a stay-at-home mother was shamed by other women.

The accentuation of oikos may be very important for evolving relationships between the social and economic sphere to produce greater sustainability practices.

When women joined the workplace in the 1950s, family organization began to change to a more nuclear structure and work became a central (politic) operating unit in the household, leading to instant meals, less time with children, and more time commuting. This capitalist structure, which most want to succeed within, is setting women up for an unfair choice – on the one hand there is pressure and desire to have a career, but also the strong biological and emotional desire to have children. For some women in the Maker case studies, this tension hit home when they left their jobs to be stay-at-home mothers and were berated for that decision.

It’s time to re-evaluate the way we value home and unpaid work in society. I am not suggesting a reversal of this process, but rather to explore and uncover ways that we can bring polis and oikos together in a radical way. Also, let’s take seriously giving individuals more time for family or meaning-making pursuits. The Swedish model is to normalize work sabbaticals for both genders as well as parents and employees without children – giving everyone more time for life.

The vital role that this has environmental work is in what I’ve called a ‘radical poli-oikos’ – a radical, life-giving, care-providing, self-sustaining politic. I’m not arguing that every woman should, or needs, to do this. Instead, those who already do stay-at-home or choose less stressful careers should be heralded as activists going against a strong system (Mahon and Robinson 2011). Individuals should not only be able to be proud to choose family over work, they should have no barriers in making this choice. By establishing a politic around it, they may see the power and importance of their actions.

This is a difficult argument to make because, in some ways, it sounds inherently anti-empowerment. However, an ethic of motherly care and polis-oikos can pose a serious threat to social hierarchy and domination, if modern feminists allow it to.

Judith Butler made a famous claim against other stay-at-home movements – that not all women are mothers: “some cannot be, some are too young or too old to be, some choose not to be, and for some who are mothers, that is not necessarily the rallying point of their politicization in feminism” (Butler 1992, 126). However, motherhood and partnerships can function as a political rallying point, and that the status of being an ‘empowered life giver’ can, and should, also be applied to those who choose to be contribute to the home economy.

Framing motherhood, care, and feminized externalities as ground for a radical politic provides fodder for policy development around social services, universal basic income, and tax bracketing. Changes in these policies could help support both women and men in working from home. This approach also begins to bring forward the web of connections between community, empowered women, and environmental protection. The historical example of the Love Canal, where environmental activism was led by women, suggests an interesting area for further research and reflection. I don’t explore this history and its relevance to my research, but it is an interesting area for future research. There is also opportunity for research in how indigenous people, women of colour, and environmental justice activists can accompany and contribute to a radical polis-oikos.

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